Why fly?

High-speed trains are proving a serious threat for Chinese airlines

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25 Oct 2013
Week in China

Most airlines have in-flight magazines and China’s high-speed trains offer similarly glossy publications in their seatbacks too. En-route to Tianjin earlier this month WiC picked one up, noting its English name, Fellow Traveller, with interest.

Why? The title has peculiarly political connotations.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a ‘fellow-traveller’ as “a person who is not a member of a particular political party (especially the Communist Party) but who sympathises with the group’s aims and policies.”

In post-war Britain, the term was derogatory. For example, in Anthony Powell’s cycle of novels A Dance to the Music of Time, the unsavoury politician Kenneth Widmerpool is referred to repeatedly as a fellow-traveller and possibly a Communist spy.

That makes it seem like an odd choice by the high-speed railway bosses. Or could a mischievous English-language sub-editor be at work?

Then again, there isn’t much else to find fault with in China’s bullet train service. When WiC has travelled on the trains, the journey has been clean, comfortable and impressively punctual. The network is proving popular with local passengers too. As the New York Times points out: “Practically every train is sold out, although they leave for cities all over the country every few minutes.”

In the wake of the Wenzhou train crash in 2011 (see WiC117), the railway’s bosses have done an impressive job improving safety. There have been no fatalities on bullet trains since then, leading the New York Times to observe: “While the Wenzhou crash is still talked about in China today, statistics suggest that China’s high-speed trains have actually proved to be one of the world’s safest transportation systems so far.”

The trains have now carried 1.8 billion passengers since 2009, leading MIT mathematician Arnold Barnett to calculate that the “mortality-risk” equals or exceeds that of the world’s safest airlines.

The US newspaper also says that the bullet network is now carrying twice as many passengers as domestic airlines each month (and by next year will be handling more than 54 million people on a monthly basis).


The rail revolution is forcing the airlines to rethink their strategies

In fact it’s the local airlines that now experience the worst PR. Usually the complaints are about the perennial flight delays, but earlier this month another type of incident dented the reputation of Air China, the country’s best-known carrier.

According to the People’s Daily, a flight from Korla to Beijing on October 6 was beset by a bout of mass food poisoning. One of the passengers who later fell ill noticed shortly after eating a beef pancake that it was beyond its expiry date. She told staff, but they said there was nothing they could do and carried on with the meal service. Within half an hour, two children were vomiting, 30 passengers were complaining of stomach ache, and long queues were forming for the toilets.

On touching down, one family was taken to a hospital and diagnosed with an ‘enteritis of unknown origin’.

After an investigation Air China said that the pancakes had not passed their expiry date, but that mistakes had been made and it apologised to passengers.

It’s the kind of story unlikely to attract new customers at a time when the airlines are already complaining that they are losing business to high-speed rail. In their first half results all three of China’s leading carriers blamed their sagging financials on the loss of passengers to bullet trains.

Speaking to CCTV, a senior executive with China Southern described the situation as “very challenging” adding that ticket prices had been slashed to meet the competitive threat. He then estimated that on any route of 800km or less, the airlines were vulnerable to losing half their passengers to the trains.

And according to the magazine New Fortune, 50% of flights on routes of less than 500km have already been cancelled by local airlines. For example, Shandong Airlines grounded its Jinan to Nanjing service after loads dropped from 100 passengers per plane to 30, reports China News Service.

One of the flagship routes – Beijing to Shanghai – is proving a particularly tough battlefield. Here the bullet train quickly started grabbing traffic after its launch in 2011. Travellers cite various benefits in letting the train take the strain. For one, it is far more likely to be on time – according to a report last month by Hong Kong Commercial Daily 82% of flights out of Beijing faced delays while a slightly less miserable 72% were late in Shanghai (it’s a subject we’ve touched on before, see WiC83).

Another plus: businesspeople can still use their mobile phones or send emails on the journey.

The upshot: an air ticket between Beijing and Shanghai can now be bought for as little as Rmb390, a rock-bottom price (the rail fare is Rmb553, or $91).

The rail revolution is forcing the airlines to rethink their strategies. One approach, points out the Economic Observer, is to build hubs beyond the eastern and southern coastal regions, where the three majors are concentrated (Air China in Beijing, China Eastern in Shanghai and China Southern in Guangzhou). That means creating new hubs in the interior of the country, establishing routes more competitive with the bullet trains (which typically means distances of more than 1,200km too).

For example, the Economic Observer says that China Southern has identified the central city of Zhengzhou in Henan province as a second hub. It already accounts for 36% of traffic at the airport but has expanded the number of flights flown there by its subsidiary Xiamen Airlines. Xiamen plans to double the number of aircraft based there to 14 by 2015, connecting cities in Fujian (such as Fuzhou and Xiamen) with Lhasa in the west, Urumqi in the northwest and Shenyang in the northeast.

In China Eastern’s case, the strategy is ‘two wings and one centre’. The centre remains as Shanghai, but the airline is building wings (i.e. further hubs) in Kunming in the southwest and in the central city of Xi’an (a former capital of China).


The bullet network is now carrying twice as many passengers as domestic airlines each month

On September 20 it added five new routes from these new hubs, the most eye-catching being a daily flight from Kunming to Taiyuan to Hohhot, a journey that cuts right through the middle of the Middle Kingdom (akin to flying from Phoenix to Tulsa to Minneapolis in the US).

Meanwhile, Air China has adopted Chengdu as its western hub as it too seeks to capture traffic to compensate for business lost (largely in eastern China) to the faster trains.

All of the airlines are banking on growing affluence in China’s second- and third-tier cities driving more leisure traffic, as well as increasing business travel by air. But the realities of the bullet train are also forcing the airlines to contemplate a more cooperative relationship, including using trains to feed traffic from nearby cities into their aviation hubs.

For example, CCTV says that China Eastern has offered packages from Suzhou where the high-speed train fare to Shanghai is included in the cost of travel, if passengers then fly from Shanghai elsewhere.

Similarly, Air China has inked an agreement in which free rail travel will be offered between Chongqing, Dazhou and Nanchong for passengers flying on one of its flights to or from Chengdu.

The integration opportunities for high-speed rail and aviation were evident to WiC during its trip to Tianjin. Although a large municipality in its own right, Tianjin currently feeds a lot of international air traffic into Beijing Capital Airport. The bullet train between the two cities now takes just 30 minutes, but takes passengers into Beijing South rail station (a vast, airport-like terminus). However, to get from this station to the airport involves a journey around some of Beijing’s busiest ring roads, which can take upwards of an hour.

Thus WiC grasped the logic of the new southern airport that Beijing wants to build (see WiC180). Earlier this year a newspaper linked to the Civil Aviation Administration implied that the project had been given the go-ahead by the State Council at an estimated cost of Rmb70 billion. And aside from six runways it will also have a 37km direct rail link to Beijing South train station, the high-speed rail hub for the city.

For a cluster of cities increasingly connected to Beijing by bullet train, this will make it far quicker for passengers to get to the new airport so as to catch international flights. For example, residents of Tianjin could probably do it in about an hour.

The demonstrable success of the high-speed network is also creating opportunities overseas. While it is true that the Wenzhou crash of 2011 and the imprisoning of railways minister Liu Zhijun (for corruption) dented the sector’s early export ambitions, an announcement last week suggests that this might have been a temporary phenomenon.

During his visit to Bangkok last week Premier Li Keqiang signed a memorandum of understanding with the Thai government to build a high-speed rail system. In an innovative approach, the Chinese will construct the network in a barter exchange for Thai food products, a move China’s press was quick to label as ‘high-speed rail for rice’.

The news was greeted enthusiastically on the Shanghai bourse, with 10 firms linked to high-speed rail, including China South Locomotive and Rolling Stock (CSR), witnessing a 10% daily spike in their stock price.

The sector also seems to be growing in confidence, with a source from one of the major rail manufacturers telling Century Weekly that China’s trains now rely on foreign suppliers for very few parts, such as the wheels and bearings. The bulk of components are now locally made (the Chinese claim to have taken many core European and Japanese rail technologies and improved on them).

However, the area in which the local train executive thought that Chinese firms most outperformed their international counterparts when competing for contracts abroad was less about tech and more to do with the sheer speed at which they could lay track.

Following Li Keqiang’s visit, the Thai government has announced plans to build four high-speed lines by 2022.

Should the deal go ahead, it sounds like the Chinese will be eating a lot more Thai rice over the coming decade ….

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